Surface RT – A Week of Use

Please do not touch the screen.

I’ve had a fair bit of time to play around with my new Surface RT now, and that’s enough time generally for me to decide whether or not it’s doing its job or will be relegated to being resold on eBay, or issued to a family member or friend (because I’m so goddamn generous). Again, I’m not going to draw pointless comparisons between Windows RT and its bigger brother Windows 8 (x86-64). It’s missing the point. I am going to draw comparisons between this and my iPad however, which is the device it’s ultimately supposed to replace.

The Bad

In healthcare we generally start off with things that aren’t good, because they’re things that we need to fix. Except in nursing, because everyone’s precious unless you don’t like them, then it’s a vindictive bitch-fight. Glad I’m out of that crap. Um… oh yeah, things that aren’t so good.

Actually to be honest there isn’t a significant number of things to really mark the system down, unless you want to miss the point and complain that it’s an ARM platform without support for x86 apps (which is an invalid complaint). In my first few days I did have a few complaints but with a few subsequent patches and the occasional hack job, these issues are fairly well resolved. One big issue is Internet Explorer. It’s… not very good. I’d actually classify it as being worse than Safari. The Favourites list is painful to navigate. Going back a page forces it to refresh. Sometimes it’s absurdly slow. Youtube in particular can be painful to use if there’s a load of advertisements trying to play at the same time – it slows the video down to a crawl (audio still plays fine). The Flash whitelist is absurd, even if you can manually edit it (guys, Google Maps should be whitelisted, there’s no Street View otherwise which is bullshit). It also insists on displaying desktop sites, which in principle is fine because the screen size lends itself to those layouts, but that often brings with it heavy Flash advertisements or other elements that slow the page down. Really, all my criticisms lie with Internet Explorer.

There are a few minor, niggling annoyances. Disconnecting the Touch Cover sometimes causes the lock screen to throw a fit and refuse to display the onscreen keyboard. You can manually display the old Desktop-style Onscreen Keyboard, which is quite franky ridiculous and shouldn’t even be there. Reconnecting it and then disconnecting it (or logging in) will often fix it, but it’s annoying. I think the idea is to pull it off before you bring it out of sleep mode – pulling it out of sleep and then pulling off the cover seems to have a greater chance of causing it to expect the cover is still attached. Not really sure, but it’s frustrating.

The inability to assign an SD card directory to a library is also frustrating. With only 16GB usable storage, I really need that SD card slot. You can create a junction point, because Windows RT is still Windows at its core and the file system is still NTFS, but why the hell should I need to do that? Okay yeah I kind of get that it’s removable media, but I’ve had portable HDDs included as part of libraries on my desktop PC, and that’s just as removable as an SD card. I wouldn’t care, but without it you’ll need to browse around for your media files, because the media apps all look to the libraries for their files.

Sometimes the touch gestures seem to go a little weird. Like I can touch my finger on the screen and go to scroll down slightly, and it’ll detect it as a finger pinch and zoom in. I’m not sure why this happens, but it’s a bit annoying. Seems to do it mostly under IE. Finally, portrait mode is almost useless with a 16:9 aspect ratio. It’s too tall and too skinny. It works for ebooks, but not for much else. It’s also a bit uncomfortable to hold in portrait mode one-handed, something that can’t be said for an iPad. Finally, the speakers are a bit quiet. They’re not particularly good, and not particularly loud, even at full volume.

Finally, you can’t print form the Reader app. Why the hell not?! I have a PDF, I need to print it, this is not an uncommon request! Microsoft, add it in, get on it!

Otherwise… yeah, no other real complaints. Of course I bought one knowing full well that it’s an ARM device running Windows RT, so the fact that it doesn’t run x86 apps is entirely irrelevant. It shouldn’t even be a consideration for reviewing it – it’s only relevant so far as the possibly confusing effect it may have on people understanding the nomenclature of the Windows 8 family. IE10 is my biggest problem with the device, and even then that’s mostly just the Modern UI version. Otherwise my other complaints are relatively minor and should be fixed by software updates.

The Good

Surprisingly things have been getting better since release. Initially I complained that my printer, a HP LaserJet Professional P1102w, wasn’t supported. It was particularly annoying because it did support my iPad. HP released a firmware update along with a new ModernUI app that allowed the printer to work with Windows RT, even over wireless. So now I have full printer support. But on that note, and somewhat disturbingly, the app managed to install itself on my desktop computer without even warning me about it. I’m guessing Windows Update is behind it, but I don’t really like the idea of apps doing that. It’s a ModernUI app so it’s not going to have the same malicious capabilities of an x86 app, but it’s still a bit disturbing. Anyway, original point being that my printer works, and that makes me happy.

Office RT is great, provided you don’t need macros or VB scripts. I’m guessing the majority of home users won’t, so it’s unlikely to be a massive issue there. Apart from that it’s an outstanding port of Office for ARM platforms. It’s fast, it acts like the desktop one (save for macros etc), and it has the desktop version of OneNote, which is really important for me because I make quite extensive use of it. Since no other ARM platform has managed to get a proper version of Office that doesn’t break formatting, I’m pretty impressed with this point. I delivered a PowerPoint presentation using the Surface RT and it worked fine – I hooked it up to a projector via VGA, and used the Surface RT’s screen to read my notes. That said it was a fairly simple PPT with few animations. Although it comes with a touch mode that just makes all the buttons bigger, I use it in mouse mode and generally manage to operate it with my fingers anyway (though I have slender surgeon’s hands, which helps). That said don’t even bother using it without a keyboard – the onscreen keyboard takes up way too much space. Use the Touch or Type covers.

Having a proper NTFS file system also makes it a lot easier to transfer files and things across. Windows Explorer is a bit painful to use with a touch screen, but it does do the job and I do appreciate how it makes life easier. You can’t do that on an iPad. You can do that on an Android tablet, though as a file manager Windows Explorer is one of the best (strangely) and native NTFS support is a pretty big plus. It’s nice to be able to go “Oh, you want a copy of my presentation? Give me that USB key, here you go.” On an iPad you sit there like an idiot going “Well no, see, the Apple magic means I can’t give it to you because… well, yeah.”

Also app support seems to be improving a bit. Like I said my printer ended up getting a nice package, and Google recently released a new Google Search app for Windows RT that has more or less replaced IE for my purposes. There’s a Youtube app called YouTube+ which has an ad-supported free version (or you can pay to get no ads, though they’re fairly tiny ads and unobtrusive) that makes Youtube a hundred times better on the Surface RT. More and more apps seemt to be coming out each week, with some of the larger groups taking notice. A local bank here in Australia (Westpac) have released a ModernUI app for internet banking for example. There are still some notable missing names (and I really want a goddamn Medscape app, come on guys I’m counting on you!) but the situation seems to be steadily improving. It’s a shame this wasn’t in full swing at launch. Also I’d kill for Google Chrome, even if it’s just an overlay for IE10, so that I have access to all my bookmarks.

In terms of battery life, I’m really pleased. Generally with the same sort of use I’d get out of my iPad, I’m charging it about once every 2 or 3 days. The stats suggest 8 hours on continual usage, and I’d probably say it’s accurate. It’s less than an iPad, and it seems to consume slightly more power on standby than an iPad, but the battery power is reliable enough that you can take it out at least for the day and expect it to last. It also only takes about 2 hours to charge up completely from dead, while the iPad 3 takes a lifetime even on mains power. It has that tablet endurance, but it is less than an iPad and makes me wonder whether the Surface Pro will merely have laptop endurance, which is a lot less unless your laptop is mostly battery under the hood.

Probably the highest praise though is that I haven’t touched my iPad at all since I’ve got the Surface RT. When I had my Galaxy Note, I’d get frustrated with things that were different from my iPhone 4, or miss certain features etc. I haven’t had that transition period with the Surface RT. Maybe that’s because it’s so close to Windows on my desktop (save for app support obviously) that the transition isn’t as rough. Maybe it’s just because I find it a better device. Whatever the case, I don’t touch my iPad these day, which I think says a lot about the Surface RT.

Ambivalence

There are a few things that go either way… mostly in app support. Although it’s better and new apps iron out some of the issues with IE10, it’s still not there yet. It’s way behind iOS, and even behind Google Play. Some of the apps are clearly out to make money off the fact that you often have no alternatives, or have to fight with IE10. There’s a Google Maps app (unofficial, not made by Google) which supports Street View, but it’s even worse than using IE10. At least it’s free. Other apps come with pricetags preying on the lack of competition or alternatives. But in saying that a load of apps have a free “try” option which generally means they’re ad-supported, which I don’t have an issue with for the most part (the majority of the ads are tiny).

But there’s still a long way to go. A simple high volume of apps isn’t a good metric – there’s a load of crap on the Google Play store, and even more under iOS. The number of useful apps is much smaller. But without some big-name support the Surface RT isn’t going to get very far. Namely, it needs proper support from the likes of Google. A proper Google Maps app would be fantastic for example. Without better support, things look bleak. Windows Phone has languished in third place by a significant margin due to poor app support. Microsoft needs developers to come back on board.

Skydrive is another minor annoyance. The ModernUI app does work (although it feels a bit too bulky, even in Details view) but it has no real sync capability – it relies on the Office apps to do that for it. And that does work, and using Skydrive with its free 7GB of space is definitely an attractive option. But it all relies on an internet connection. At home or at uni that’s not an issue. On the road I’d need to tether my phone or get a 3G USB modem that is supported by Windows RT. Skydrive really needs the ability to do offline synchronisation, like the x86 desktop client. Yes, I can download a file from Skydrive to local storage, but that’s not the same as syncing it. This might also mean we need to be able to sync only certain files or folders, but it’d make life a lot easier.

As for the Touch Cover… I’m in two minds about it. On the one hand, it’s 100% hands-down better than an onscreen keyboard. You claw back a lot of screen space, and it gives slightly more of a tactile feel to typing. If I have to type anything over a short sentence every so often, I’ll take the Touch Cover. But it’s not the same as typing on an actual keyboard (use the Type Cover for that, but even that isn’t quite as good), so for really long typing sessions I still wouldn’t use it. The lack of tactile feedback on key presses is disconcerting. Although the “keys” are slightly raised, there’s still not enough to differentiate between them. Tapping between keys or too close to another key seems to occasionally register the wrong key press. I have a lot of trouble with A and S – often I’ll end up getting an S when I wanted an A, and I’m not sure if I’m pressing S, or if there’s a defect and I’m actually pressing near A but still too close to S. Holding keys like Shift is a bit awkward too. It’s easy to miss keystrokes. But for all the criticisms, it does work, and it works remarkably well considering it’s just a thin piece of fabric/plastic to look at.

Conclusion

Do I recommend the Surface RT after all this? Yes, with a clarification – if you’re looking for a laptop replacement, the answer is ultimately no. But to be honest I see no evidence that the Surface Pro will really excel either – its going to be similar in size to the Surface RT (slightly bigger) which either means the CPU will be underpowered and thus not suited to replace a laptop, or it’ll have a reduced battery life which renders it a bit useless. Of course that’s all speculative, but I’m 90% certain that Microsoft don’t have a new battery technology hidden away so there’s going to be a compromise somewhere. Also if you’re going the x86 path there might be better options from other manufacturers.

But that aside, in terms of an iPad replacement, I’d definitely tell you to consider it above the Android tablet sector, which is still playing catch-up after all these years. The Surface RT still has some issues to iron out, and the storage space advertisement is only true in that 32GB is actually present though 50% isn’t usable  But by and large it’s a great tablet with a great mobile OS and a full featured version of Office. App support is improving, but still has a while to go. Whether or not it’s an iPad killer still remains to be seen, but in my uses so far it has the makings of an outstanding device and ecosystem. As I say, it’s replaced my iPad, and I’ve been using iPads since 2010 when they came out. It’s definitely worth considering.

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